I don’t know why I keep waiting for Roger Goodell to display at least the smallest trace of humanity in a public setting, because he just doesn’t seem capable of it. Maybe there’s a pulse inside that suit somewhere, but I haven’t seen proof of it in all these months of troubled headlines for the NFL; it’s almost like the worse things get, the more Goodell seems to burrow into his robotic talking points, to rebel against the idea that he requires anything actually resembling a persona.
On Wednesday, at the commencement of the NFL’s spring meeting in San Francisco, Goodell held another largely pointless press conference, one of those brief affairs in which he offers up legal hedges and emotionless platitudes amounting to nothing much at all.
On the rampant farce that is “Deflategate,” Goodell obfuscated things ever further, insisting that the punishment fit the crime, even though the very nature of the crime is still in question; confronted with the overarching subtext that perhaps he had overstepped his bounds, and that he had too much power and not enough transparency, Goodell didn’t even seem to acknowledge that such a notion had entered the public sphere. He denied, he spoke in platitudes and he insisted we could trust both him and the league he oversees, even as outside the bubble of that Ritz-Carlton ballroom where he spoke, his reputation continues to crumble.
In a way, it makes sense for Goodell not to care about public appearances. If any American institution has been able to carry an air of Who gives a shit? over the past few decades, it’s the NFL. This is a sport that is on the verge of being marginalized within 50 years, yet it paradoxically gets more popular every year; that dichotomy is what allowed Goodell’s predecessor, a stone-faced lawyer named Paul Tagliabue, to get away with the same death of charm. The difference is that Tagliabue was always perceived as competent (even if there may have been sinister things happening under the surface); the difference is that the NFL wasn’t living under a veiled threat of extinction back then.
But after the Ray Rice case, Goodell doesn’t have the luxury of perceived competence anymore. It’s just the opposite. He is universally despised by his company’s own fanbase, and the league he presides over is facing both immediate and existential questions about its future. But at least for now, the NFL appears to making a bet that it doesn’t have to care about legitimate transparency (or even competence), because it remains the most popular sport in America by a wide margin. Any transparency the league offers these days – the independent investigations in the Rice case and in the matter of Brady versus deflated balls, et. al. – feels almost perfunctory, and has largely been nullified by Goodell’s inability to stay out of his own damned way. (Even Tagliabue isn’t on his side anymore.)
The notion that Goodell might be both judge and witness in Brady’s appeal isn’t something that seems to faze him at all; the notion that someone in his midst might be leaking inaccurate and potentially maliciously false information doesn’t appear to concern him, either. The notion that he might soon be directly challenged by the league’s most iconic quarterback is obviously something Goodell would prefer to avoid, but I imagine he thinks he can win this battle, too. He’s survived a series of colossal missteps; perhaps he sees this case as the best chance to reestablish his hegemony.
This week, Patriots owner Robert Kraft agreed to drop the team’s appeal of the “Deflategate” case, in part because Kraft and Goodell have always been close. I imagine Kraft wants to maintain as much influence over the commissioner as he can; I imagine he increasingly sees in Goodell a weakened player who needs an ally far more than Kraft does. But at some point, Goodell’s going to run out of allies. At some point, he’s going to be standing up at that podium all by himself, and by then, it may be too late to offer up much of anything other than his resignation.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb